Māori Women’s Stories: From Past to Present

(Honey, Benita, and Anahera Tahuri) Image by Stephen Langdon
 Moko kauae: traditional Māori female chin tattoo

Nanaia Mahuta
At 46 years old, Mahuta became the first member of parliament in the world to wear the moko kauae. She represents the renaissance of moko kauae in Māori women and diversifies the political climate by reintroducing traditional culture and history into the political spectrum. In ancient Māori tradition, every woman has a moko within them that, when she is ready, will be exposed by the tattoo artist onto the chin. Like many women, Mahuta got the tattoo to commemorate the milestones in her life, the turning point being the anniversary of her father’s death. On her chin are the traditional patterns of the Ngāti Maniapoto, her native tribe. For Mahuta, moko kauae is about pride for oneself and one’s community heritage.

“As a young Māori woman I want my daughter to know that everything is at her fingertips; she just needs to reach forward and grab it”

Pip Hartley
The beginning of the end for the ancient practice of Tā Moko began in the early 1840’s when English settlers surged in, forcing Māori people to leave their homes and forget their culture, and even their language. Over 100 years later, the revival of traditional Māori culture is in full swing. One of the young agents of change is Pip Hartley. At just 18 years old, she travelled to rural, remote parts of New Zealand in order to learn the ancient art of Tā Moko. Now 33, she owns a tattoo shop in Auckland called Karanga Ink, and continues to revive the once lost art. The “internal calling” that inspires one’s moko kauae represents a strong tie to their ancestors and their culture.

“Every time they see it, it’s a reminder of what they’ve achieved, and that their tupuna [ancestors] have their back”

Jude Hoani

For most Māori women, moko kauae is about tying their individuality and sense of self to their country and pride for their heritage. Hoani thought about her moko for 20 years before deciding that she wanted it as a testimony to her connection to her past and her culture. Despite doubt from her husband, the death of her brother marked the moment in which she was sure of her moko. At the same time as his death, Gordon Toi reappeared in her life. Gordon Toi is not only Hoani’s cousin, but also an esteemed tā moko artist. Using both a ruru (Māori traditional kaitiaki [guardian] of the chin) and components of her tribe’s, the Ngāpuhi, Toi created a moko kauae that represents both Hoani’s inner strength and her pride for her past and her ancestors.

“A lot of people in my town who had never spoken to me started talking to me. They actually see me, they look at me, they look at my face, they look into my eyes”

Benita Tahuri
Like many Māori women, Tahuri’s moko came after much strife in her own life. After 20 years of contemplation, a bump in the road finally pushed her into getting it done. What is most important about Tahuri’s moko to her is instilling the sense of culture into her daughters. Tahuri is from the small town of Wairoa in New Zealand, where segregation between Māori and Pākehā was alive and Māori was never spoken in public. After moving out, Tahuri sent her two daughters to Māori immersion school in an effort to revitalize the lost part of their culture and identity that had been such a taboo for years. Now 23 and 25 years old, her daughters Honey and Anahera both have their own mokos. For Tahuri, the moko is about outward pride in one’s culture, not something that can be merely covered up.

“For me it spoke of healing, reflection, and empowerment and identity. It wasn’t any conscious kind of thought—the physical manifestation of moko kauae is the end of a journey”

Drina Paratene
Just like all of the wonderful Māori women before her, Paratene seeks to normalize the practice of moko kauae in modern day society. She wants to revitalize a culture that had been buried away by years of colonization and shame. In the early 1980’s, Paratene joined the Kohānga Reo movement that sought to resuscitate the Māori language and culture. After saying a karakia [prayer], Paratene prepared herself for the inevitable pain of the tattoo using the traditional uhi technique, but instead was met with no pain and an overwhelming sense of peace. This event was practically spiritual. Carved into her skin forever are the three things which drive Paratene’s life and self: tika [honesty and integrity], pono [belief in a higher spiritual being], and aroha [love]. These three concepts tattooed onto her chin represent a woman’s pride for own moral self and her connection to her culture and traditions.

“I wanted to impart those values to my children and grandchildren. When they look at my moko kauae, there’s a message, and that’s around living a purposeful life”

To learn more about these women and their stories, visit: https://broadly.vice.com/en_us/article/its-transformative-maori-women-talk-about-their-sacred-chin-tattoos

For some amazing videos on Pip Hartley’s art, visit the Karanga Ink Facebook page (@karangaink) or click this link: https://www.facebook.com/pg/karangaink/videos/?ref=page_internal

Works Cited

Duff, Michelle. “‘It’s Transformative’: Maori Women Talk About Their Sacred Chin Tattoos.” Broadly. VICE Media LLC, 13 Sept. 2016. Web. 21 Mar. 2017.

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